January 15th, 2018

book talk // the vegetarian.

The Vegetarian by Hang Kang is an unconventional novel. It begins with a simple enough premise, Yeong-hye decides to stop eating meat after having a particularly gruesome dream. The novel is told in three parts, first from the perspective of Yeong-hye’s husband, then her brother-in-law, and finally her sister. Her husband describes Yeong-hye as “ordinary,” “normal,” he notes that there is truly nothing he considers special about her. However, when she decides to become a vegetarian, he is disgusted, considering it an affront to their very normal existence. He simply can’t comprehend her behavior and responds first with angry questions, then by sexually assaulting her after her vegetarianism embarrasses him at a company dinner.

Yeong-hye’s husband, as well as the rest of her family, cannot abide this decision and their disagreement on the issue culminates in a violent crescendo that mirrors the subtle psychological terror present in Korean horror movies. Eventually, she has a psychotic break that leads to a sort of anorexic catatonia and, eventually, an extended stay in a mental institution. Yeong-hye no long wants to eat a plant-based diet, but instead live a plant-based life, subsisting solely on sunshine and rainwater. To her, this seems both pure and plausible. To everyone else, it seems utterly unhinged.

Yeong-hye is not a character you really want to believe in or support, and I’m not sure she could even be described as likeable (probably none of the characters in this book could be), but her cause is striking and compelling, if insane. It’s also interesting to me because, at the time of the original Korean publication, marital rape was not yet illegal and Yeong-hye quietly accepts this treatment, walling it up in a place deep inside her. She also lives within a culture where she must be subservient to men (her father, husband, brother even), so this novel makes allegorical sense in that she is trying to assert herself, and perhaps even protect herself, through the only thing she can actually control — food. Additionally, the presumed protagonist, Yeong-hye herself, never gets a chance to vocalize her own experience; the novel is told entirely from outsider points of view, again, indirectly showcasing her inability to control her own life.

This novel has been described by many as Kafka-esque, and I would agree that the tendency toward surrealist themes is definitely there and there is no filler in her writing, no fluff, each word has its intended place. However, the tone is more poetic, the images perhaps more graphic , and I believe this sets Kang in a category all her own. Don’t go into this novel expecting answers — you’ll leave with more questions than you began with — but, instead, savor the fact that Kang has created something sparse, dark, and undeniably moving.

Rating: 5/5
Recommended for: lovers of weird literary fiction, those who want to read more literature-in-translation or specifically Korean literature

  • I wonder if I’m a lover of weird literary fiction? I love weird and I love literary fiction, but I’m not sure if I love them together.